Washington, 15 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The possibility of Russian retaliation for the arrest in the United States of a former Soviet agent raises three broader questions about the way in which each of these countries will deal with the past and thus with the future as well.
And these broader questions are likely to prove to be more important and longlasting than the resolution of this particular incident.
The case itself is sufficiently complex from both the legal and political points of view. Last month, Vladimir Galkin, a retired KGB officer, was arrested when he entered the United States and was arraigned in federal court on charges that he conducted espionage operations against the United States.
In response, the Russian government, according to Itar-Tass, is preparing to retaliate against U.S. officials in Russia.
From a legal point of view, Galkin's arrest and arraignment sparked debate among American lawyers. Some of them argued that Galkin's arrest represents a reasonable extension of the espionage laws even though the crimes Galkin is accused of took place on the territory of a foreign state.
Other legal experts argued that this extension of the American legislation is both unwarranted and potentially damaging to American national interests. Specifically, those who argue that the U.S. government had overreached pointed out how easy and natural it would be for Moscow to retaliate.
On Thursday, the U.S. prosecutors reportedly decided to withdraw the charges against Galkin, but their action on this case does little to resolve the three broader issues Galkin's arrest had raised.
First, Galkin is not the only retired KGB officer who has traveled to or now lives in the United States. Consequently, if the charges against him are upheld, there are likely to be demands for charges to be brought against other former Soviet spies.
And in that context, Russian retaliation would almost certainly follow. Moreover, because there are relatively few if any retired American intelligence operatives in Russia, Moscow would almost certainly move against current American employees in Russia itself. And that in turn could chill relations between the two countries.
But even if the charges are dismissed, there might still be questions about the potential legal liability of former Soviet spies now living in the West for their past activities -- particularly if those activities were on American soil.
Second, this case highlights the difficulties Moscow continues to face in coping with Soviet intelligence operations both against foreign countries and inside the Russian Federation.
Some human rights activists in Moscow have called for a full lustration of the Soviet intelligence services because of the crimes they were involved with in the past. But most Russian political figures have been unwilling to do so because the number of cases would likely be quite large.
Moreover, Russian leaders and many in the West also fear the political consequences of such trials. They would certainly reopen many old wounds. And they would likely implicate many current Russian officials. Both these developments could -- at least in the short run -- undermine stability in Russia.
And third, by casting itself in the role of defender of past Soviet operations rather than distancing itself from such activities, the Russian government may win support from many people in Russia itself but only at an enormous potential cost.
On the one hand, those in Russia who support Moscow's reported threat to retaliate are likely to view it as an entirely reasonable reaffirmation of Russia's continuing status as a great power.
But on the other, Moscow's threat to do so will inevitably remind everyone of the continuities in Russian power. And such recollections are likely to exacerbate current concerns on the part of Russia's neighbors and the West.
Consequently, even if Galkin soon passes back into obscurity, the Galkin case seems destined to be a historically significant one.